Editor’s Note: Colman Domingue (Zola, Ma Rainey’s black stockings) is one of many black actors whose careers have been inspired by Sidney Poitier who broke racial barriers to become Hollywood’s first black movie star and the first black man to win the Academy Award for Best Actor. In an essay for the following Deadline The death of Poitier At 94, Domingo writes about his meeting with Poitier and the profound impact that meeting – as well as Poitier’s life and career – had on him.
To M. Poitier, with love.
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We mourn you. We celebrate and cherish you. You have been and will always be our guide. When the world tells us we don’t matter, you’ve never hesitated. Fire, spirit, grace, humor and humanity, you were born with the share of lions. A Hollywood star par excellence. A true Broadway legend. A civil rights icon. A gentle human.
In January 2015, I received an invitation from Oprah winfrey. To join her, Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo and the extraordinary cast of Selma to honor the Legends who paved the way. I was playing in London’s West End at Scottsboro boys. In the movie SelmaI played Ralph Abernathy, Dr King’s right-hand man. And we had to show our heartfelt movie and take the stage and honor legends like John Lewis, Diane Nash, CT. Vivian, Berry Gordy, Dick Gregory among others and To mister with lovehimself, Sidney Poitier. There was no way I would miss being in this lively room. I made my request to leave for a weekend to be in Santa Barbara. When I say “ask”, for the first time in my career, it was more of a request. There is no way I will miss this historic moment. This invitation does not come back often. Especially for a kid in West Philly who didn’t even expect to ask for this “request” from his lodge in Trafalgar Square.
So I left. I wasn’t rolling on the money, so I booked a flight on an airline that would take me from London to Zurich to Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. I treated myself to Comfort Plus on my return as I was literally going from Gatwick Airport on my call time to the Garrick Theater.
Oprah laid down the red carpet for this casting. On the hotel grounds, I met Smokey Robinson and his lovely wife. Legends from all disciplines were dressed in their finery to celebrate this momentous occasion. There was a Legends Ball where we, the cast of Selma, stood in front of these icons and read a beautiful poem written by Pearle Cleage to honor this moment.
The next day we all traveled by caravan in SUVs to Oprah’s breathtaking house, aptly called The Promised Land. Oprah and Stedman [Graham] stood under a welcoming tree and shook hands with everyone who came to celebrate.
We all found ourselves sitting casually on the valley where some sort of awakening would take place. We went to church at Oprah’s. Ava kissed me and introduced me to Tyler Perry who was standing next to her. I smiled so big as I walked towards fellowship with the others. And then I turned over on my right shoulder and there he was. Smiling straight at me like we know each other. Mr. Poitier. He was sitting a few rows on what, in my memory, was a small hill as the seats rose. His eyes sparkled with what seemed to be all the secrets in the world. My body just led me up to this giant and we gently shook hands. “How are you?” he said. I don’t remember what I said, but I’m sure I said it right. My heart was in my hands all weekend, in silent admiration for every detail. It was the deepest moment for me.
You see, Mr. Poitier’s career was indeed the North Star for actors and artists like me. When I struggled as an actor in the Bay Area and constantly auditioned for thugs and drug dealers, Mr. Poitier said, you are so much more, create the job and keep going. When I trod the stage and worked on complex portrayals of black men, I turned to Mr. Poitier to know there was an audience and room for it, keep going. We can challenge the system that sometimes turns to the most marginal representations and celebrate them as our best, keep going. We all looked to Mr. Poitier to find out that a glass ceiling had been shattered and that he belonged to generations of Morgan Freemans, Denzel Washingtons, Danny Glovers, Sam Jacksons and all his “children” – including me. – to take over. and keep trying to stand on the shoulders of his great heritage. He had such huge shoulders that carried an entire nation with his artistic heritage, and it is no easy task. But we will try. We will continue.
This weekend we cry and cherish, pay homage and meditate on all that Mr. Poitier has done for all of us, brown-skinned boys from humble backgrounds, worked as a dishwasher, walked the boards, a forged a unique path and is deeply rooted in American art culture as an actor, director, producer and deep human. I thank him. My brothers thank him. Really and deliciously for his immense service. He moved the needle for all of us. May we make him proud. May this industry, which aims to be more diverse, inclusive and fair, make him proud. We will all look to this pole star.
To M. Poitier, with love. May he be the light of all of us.
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